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"Dangerous times and funky times": in conversation with Alabama 3

"Bristol always gets us in the f**king zone like, do you know what I mean?" Larry Love discusses Bristol, the new album, booze and more.

By Benji ChapmanCo-Deputy Music Editor

Within 48 seconds of speaking to Larry, he's outpouring his love for Bristol. "Bristol is a really wise musical city," says Rob Spragg- better known by his stage name Larry Love. His coarse Glaswegian accent squeezes out of the tiny speaker of the iPhone sat on my desk. Our chat, which was so suddenly energised with a love of the city, is briefly interrupted by a call from his son. I stare into space as I wait to hear back from him.

After assuring me his son is alright, and more swearing, Larry gets back into the topic of conversation we started earlier. "Alabama 3 come from Brixton. Brixton's kind of really multicultural and Bristol's got the same - shall we say - tragedies and triumphs, you know what I mean. The Windrush generation and all that, Caribbean culture has really influenced it." Larry's doing a lot of the work for me here- I don't even have the mention it and he's letting known his love for the city, drawing a parallel between its heritage and the place of the band's inception in London. "I find it a really bouncing city... It's in the paving stones," a place I imagine that was as receptive to the group's eclectic fusion of acid-house, techno and country music when it emerged in Brixton where they made their start.

Like the separate and diverse heritages that Larry discusses in the two locations, their co-habitual musical histories also come together to form something new that is excitingly fresh and distinct. His music is inductively connected to the place of its creation, and meshes with Bristol in this sense. Larry recollects one of his first gigs in Bristol as a youngster, seeing Motörhead on the Bomber tour at St Pauls. Between details concerning the sound-system, he hazily calls back to a walk past Turbo Island before emerging in a pub run by a Rastafarian. "I've got lost many a time in Bristol... Dangerous times and funky times."

Larry's music may be something he self-designates as "not to be taken too seriously," but he's keenly aware of the cultural identities that constitute its existence. After telling me a story about the time he nearly got the band kicked off a US talk show, fooled by the innocence of the band's gospel preacher choir, for excessive smoking and boozing he switches to a more serious tone. "We're kind of culturally re-appropriating a lot of black music as well. White musicians are asked to be very careful of that." I'm struck by how quickly Larry segues from joking to sincerity, but very tastefully he elaborates. "I've always been aware of it, basic racism in music. I love Elvis and all that but he just nicked off Big Boy Crudup and people like that, and that's always been the story. Same with Led Zeppelin ripping of the blues."

Alabama 3 @ O2 Academy | Benji Chapman

Cold War Classics Vol. 2, Alabama 3's 14th and latest project was released earlier this year. You won't find it on many online forums or Rate Your Music, and for good reason, the record is one decisively rooted in the die-hard, ex-raver fandom who have been flocking to live shows on the record's supporting tour. When I saw the band at the O2 Academy later on after our chat I was struck by the older crowd, most of which have been following the group since they started experimenting in '95 within such uncharted musical territory. The band are on their 28th year of activity now; persevering through some incredible challenges to pass the test of time in a fearsome display of cross-genre experimentation.

The album's themes are heavily political, wearing its messaging on its sleeves, a sentiment that I would argue has also brought some younger listeners like myself into the fan-base. "I thought Covid would make the world more harmonious," Larry sighs when I ask him about the album's opening, which samples a speech by Greta Thunberg. Between curses, he tells me how the album is "about nostalgia for the simplicity of nuclear war." Looking back at the period, Larry compares how misinformation in the 60s was defined by a more distinct nature: code-breaking and secret services, "now it's everywhere on social media."

"We're just doing it now with new technology, there's definitely a wind up there" he cackles. "Everything's boiling over... Debate becomes crippled by extremism," and he switches to a more serious tone in a speedy transition I'm now acclimatised to. He makes it clear the album's politicisation is only as serious as it is charmingly witty, recollecting the ironically romantic ballad North Korea on the album, a "chat up song" about taking a fussy date to North Korea. Live, the song was accompanied by an image of Kim Jong Un wearing a Supreme puffer jacket. Alabama 3 don't want to be taken too seriously, and Larry makes it clear that this juxtaposition of the sincere and ironic is a way of reminding the fans this; "it can be really boring if you're being preached at."

Alabama 3 @ O2 Academy | Benji Chapman

Owing to his childhood as the son of a preacher and church pianist, Larry moves on from album talk to share how the group's unique sound came about. "I remember being 13 or 14, realising quite how there was a commonality between the blues, the 'devil's music', and gospel." Using old blues records, he details how he made his start mixing over techno at free-parties, raves and squats. "We weren't taken that seriously at first, but we're still rolling down the train tracks 25, 30 years later" cheers Larry triumphantly, referring to "the enemy" who called the band a novelty act when they took their sound to parties. "You can't mix country blues and techno" imitates Larry, but he sees the funny side. Cracking up he reflects how the initially mixed reactions may have had something to do with the fact "we were talking in daft American accents."

D Wayne Love, a founding member of the band known personally as Jake Black has been credited by Larry as creating the notorious Southern American accent that permeates the vocals in Alabama 3's work, coming around on account of the fact "no one could understand him." Larry mimics D Wayne with a confusingly gargled Scottish/US accent, before sincerely turning to one of the biggest challenges the group has faced- losing Jake in 2019. It's the first album and tour Larry has done without him, though he's triumphant in honouring his contributions whilst moving forward as a band. "Hey ho we can have a D Wayne AI next year, a hologram, so he's coming back." Laughing yet again Larry says cheerily, but with a saddened undertone, how losing D Wayne changed the writing process- spurring him make something new. "It was difficult. Subconsciously I decide to start listening to a lot of early 70's funk to push the envelope on that."

Before we end the interview I'm tentatively keen to ask a question that's been on my mind since I started listening to the band, discovering them as most people do in their song Woke Up This Morning, better known as the theme song of The Sopranos. "In lockdown 18-24 year olds were really getting into it, and that's what's hard for me. The person who wrote the f**king song still bounces." Larry's determination to get up on the stage with just as much energy as he had 28 years ago is certainly commendable.

Alabama 3 @ O2 Academy | Benji Chapman

"But can I tell you something bruv: I've never watched it. It's cos I can't stand my own voice." The shocking revelation forces a laugh from both of us, humbling me with the fact Larry hates hearing his own singing voice as the next person. between chuckles we say our farewells and discuss getting a drink after the show. The band may be in their 28th year of activity but they're just as cheeky, lively and fesity as they were in '95. Larry said it better than I ever could, when he wisely uttered; "Alabama 3 is very good at looking stupid. Intelligent musicians pretend they're stupid. I knew it'd be a long game."

Featured Image: Guy Smallman

Have you listened to Cold War Classics Vol. 2 yet?